Jan. 10, 2002
Vol. 21 No. 7

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    Religion, death penalty to be topic at Jan. 25 conference

    By Seth Sanders
    News Office

    The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life will convene a conference Friday, Jan. 25, titled “A Call for Reckoning: Religion and the Death Penalty,” at the University’s Divinity School.

    Prominent scholars of politics, religion and law will gather to consider the religious implications of the death penalty and the theological arguments for and against it. Major players in the official enactment of capital punishment, including Oklahoma Governor Frank Keating, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Scalia, former U.S. Senator Paul Simon, and prosecutor in the Timothy McVeigh trial Beth Wilkinson, will join scholars as conference participants.

    The conference will bring together Catholics, Protestants, Jews and Muslims from the fields of politics, religion and law to take up a broad range of views on the death penalty. Special attention will be given to the following guiding questions: How does religion shape current views about the death penalty? What role should religious beliefs play in a pluralistic democratic society that presumes strict boundaries between matters of private faith and political life? How might citizens, jurors, neighbors and people of faith draw upon religious ideas in carrying out their civic responsibilities?

    Other speakers who will consider these questions are: Jean Bethke Elshtain, the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Professor of Social and Political Ethics in the University’s Divinity School; Khaled Abou El Fadl, who teaches in the University of California-Los Angeles School of Law and is one of the leading authorities in Islamic law in the United States and Europe; Victor Anderson, associate professor of Christian ethics at Vanderbilt University Divinity School; J. Budziszewski, a political philosopher from the departments of government and philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin; E.J. Dionne Jr., a columnist at The Washington Post, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and co-chair of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life; Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J., the Laurence J. McGinley professor of religion and society at Fordham University; Richard Garnett, assistant professor of law at the University of Notre Dame Law School; Gilbert Meilaender, professor of Christian ethics at Valparaiso University; and David Novak, chairman of Jewish studies at the University of Toronto.

    Divinity School student and conference co-organizer Eric Owens said, “In recent years the death penalty has faced increasing scrutiny in the United States, particularly among political and religious conservatives, who are its traditional supporters. Observers point to the 1998 execution of Karla Faye Tucker in Texas as a catalyst for reconsideration of capital punishment among religious conservatives.”

    Tucker was convicted of brutally murdering two people with a pickaxe, but while in prison she experienced a religious conversion and, by all accounts, a personal transformation. As her execution date neared, both Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell––who had long expressed their support for capital punishment––unsuccessfully appealed for clemency on her behalf and spoke publicly of their growing concerns about the justice of the death penalty as administered in the United States.

    Two years later, George Ryan, Governor of Illinois, instituted the first, and still the only, moratorium on state executions, pending a review of the entire capital judicial process. His decision came after several death row prisoners were released––one just two days before his execution––when new evidence exonerated them.

    Ryan said of his decision, “Until I can be sure with moral certainty that no innocent man or woman is facing a lethal injection, no one will meet that fate.”

    Meanwhile, Pope John Paul II renewed his appeals to end the death penalty worldwide during the Jubilee Year 2000, personally appealing to U.S. state governors for clemency in advance of executions in their states. The Pope also unsuccessfully appealed to President Bush for clemency for Timothy McVeigh, who on June 11, 2001, became the first federal prisoner to be executed in nearly 40 years. In part because of McVeigh’s complete lack of remorse for killing 168 people in Oklahoma City, the American public broadly supported his execution.

    The Pew Forum, co-chaired by Elshtain and Dionne, was instituted last year with the express purpose of promoting a more sophisticated discussion concerning the many ways in which religion and politics intersect. The Pew Forum has headquarters in Washington as well as an office located in the Divinity School.

    The Forum staff at the University, including Elshtain, has put together this program with the hope that the underlying religious and theological rationales for, or against, the death penalty, and the many moral and ethical questions the death penalty raises, will be presented in a way that clarifies complex questions.